July 25 at Doc Films: “Mysterious Skin”

HeraldBlog Contributor

In between his child actor days of the ‘90s and his return to stardom in the late ‘00s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt took a break from acting full time to instead study at Columbia University. This break afforded him the time to take on smaller, more interesting projects than before, playing a teenage psychiatric patient in Manic (2001), a high school drug detective in neo-noir Brick (2005), and a child abuse victim in 2004’s Mysterious Skin, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Friday, July 25.

Mysterious Skin follows two boys, Neil and Brian, who are both abused by their baseball coach at the age of eight. As they grow into their teen years, Neil (Gordon-Levitt) is heavily affected by the abuse and turns to crime and male prostitution. On the other hand, Brian (Brady Corbet) has blocked out the experience entirely, believing himself to have been abducted by aliens during that time. As Brian’s recurring nightmares become more vivid, he seeks out Neil to discover the truth.

Almost immediately Gordon-Levitt’s presence as Neil overshadows his co-star’s, and the movie seems all too eager to place the majority of its focus on his development instead of Brian’s. As child, Neil was already attracted to the type of man his coach was – burly, mustachioed – so he remembers the sexual abuse in a positive light and found the days with his coach fun. Neil therefore brings this sexual experience into his teenage years and becomes reckless as he propositions men from an abandoned playground or starts inserting sex and alcohol into all facets of his life.

During this hurtle into becoming a teenager, Gordon-Levitt gives a brilliant performance that captures all of the subtleties involved in Neil’s background. Even the way he walks around – a short of reluctant strut – betrays his dark past informing his decisions. Despite the seemingly endless amounts of sex Neil participates in, he never seems to enjoy it in any way. However, nor does he dislike doing it, instead getting pleasure out of being intimate with these older men, all pointing back to the summer at his coach’s.

The fact that Brian’s story falls to the side might not a fault of the performance, but rather the nature of the character itself. Whereas Neil becomes boisterous and promiscuous as he gets older, Brian represses any sexuality or outgoing behavior as a result of repressing his abuse. The effect is that the quiet, reserved performance from Corbet is not as explosive or engaging to watch as Gordon-Levitt’s, but it remains perfectly in line with the way Brian is affected, frozen in permanent adolescence. He’s purposefully not very interesting.

It doesn’t particularly help that the weaker moments of the movie occur during Brian’s segments, though this is not the character’s fault. Rather, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s small part as Avalyn Friesen, an alien believer whom Brian contacts in his search for answers about his blackouts as a child, weighs down his portion. Once she suggests that Brian investigate his vague memories of another boy (Neil) being present during the abduction, Avalyn no longer brings much more to movie, despite appearing a few more times and even making sexual advances toward Brian. The advice to search for Neil does help Brian find his answers, but everything else about Avalyn seems like a failed attempt to spice up Brian’s story a bit with a crazy alien-obsessed character.

Eventually, Brian befriends a friend of Neil’s, Eric, after Neil moves to New York, and it is only then that Brian’s character gets the chance to develop. Eric helps Brian out of shell, introducing him to rock music and drawing things other than aliens, and when Neil and Brian finally meet during Christmas, Corbet gives a powerful performance of Brian’s breakdown as Neil explains in detail everything about the day Brian was abused.

Mysterious Skin is therefore a difficult exploration of the effects child abuse can have on the victims. Despite the movie obviously criticizing the act itself, Neil and Brian never get any justice for their experiences, and the movie never reveals what happened to the coach after he leaves their lives. Rather, the focus is on the boys themselves trying to grow up, but never truly being able to – everything in their lives always pulling them back to the summer when they were eight years old.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.